Ovid’s Enchanted Ring Poem: Amores 2.15
Sexual innuendoes abound in Ovid’s delightful “ring poem,” Amores 2.15, where the narrator imagines he has been transformed into the signet ring he will give his lover. This text has been analyzed with skill and sensitivity (e.g., García, McKeown). Insufficient attention has been paid, however, to the role of allusions to magic, which served as a frequent foil for Ovid, especially in the Metamorphoses (Segal). Of Circe’s magical spells there, Segal states that, “...Ovid knows that they constitute a language of symbols for both the transformative power of his own art and the darker reaches of the human soul, the world of art, emotions, and the passions that, in the last analysis, is the real subject of the Metamorphoses (Segal).” In a light-hearted prelude to Ovid’s more intricate later development of this theme, Amores 2.15 evokes the arts of Circe – and of Proteus, too. The latter transforms himself into a thousand shapes; the former, others, often with disastrous results for male sexual potency (cf. Amores 3.7). Reflecting both, the narrator of Amores 2.15 transforms himself and offers reassurances regarding possible harm to his masculine vigor. Amores 2.15 also evokes real-world magical practices, in particular binding magic and animated figurines (eros magic) and, most appropriately, magical rings (philia magic) (Collins, Faraone 2001).
Eros magic was used mainly by men to compel passion in (generally) female targets (Faraone). Philia magic was usually practiced by women targetting men, but men used magical rings to win the sexual favors of women (Faraone). Magical rings are found in numerous sources, including Plato (Republic 2.359d-360a, where the ring makes its wearer, Gyges, invisible so he so he can gain access to the king’s wife) and the Greek-Egyptian magical papyri (e.g., PGM 12.201-202) (Faraone 2001). Furthermore, just as the narrator of Amores 2.15 addresses his gift directly – uniquely among gift poems (Garcia) - magical rings also could be directly addressed (e.g., PDM xiv. 376-94, 1090-6 - both erotic contexts; cf. Faraone 2011).
Amores 2.15 evokes both forms of love magic already from the first line. Here the ring is directly addressed and is understood as animate and as going to the target to perform binding magic (vincture), which is imagined to instigate an immediate erotic response (4-6, Garcia), the goal of eros magic. But Ovid goes a step further, and his narrator gets metamorphosed into the ring itself. The ring becomes even more lively, travelling over the woman’s body, which gives the narrator unseen access to her.
This transformation is achieved by Circean and Protean arts (10), whose potential harm to the user (Segal) underlies the reassurances that the narrator-ring will not be a disgrace (dedecori, 21) or a burden (onus, 22), or suffer any damage (damna, 24) from the lover’s bathwater. These lines have puzzled scholars (e.g., Booth, Oliver) and have not been satisfactorily explained, but in a magical context clearly refer to the impotence that’s ever a risk with Circean magic (Segal). Amores 3.7, where Circean rites may have caused impotence, shows striking similarities: the powerless organ is an onus (4) and pondus (15) that brings shame (pudor) and damna (72). Moreover, hot baths were thought to cause sexual lassitude (e.g., Petr. Sat. 130.7, where Encolpius skips his bath to combat impotence (130.7); Livy (scorta balineaque...enervaverunt corpora animosque, 23.18; Pliny, NH 29.26; Anth. Lat. 164). Here, the narrator’s reassurances are followed by the confident assertion that, once his lover is naked, “mea membra libidine surgent,” and that he will “play the part of a man.” Having gained his goal – Gyges-like - of access to his puella, he would naturally wish to return post-haste to human form.
But the reverie ends and with it the magic. The narrator’s thoughts return to sending his gift with the hope it will be received as evidence of his amor and fides, which form the true ring in this work.